When the 89th Academy Awards concluded last Sunday with the all-time volcanic screw up of wrongly announcing "La La Land" as the 2016 Best Picture winner, something shifted. And as the ash of that is still floating in the ether on social media it is obscuring something genuinely - and massively - hopeful. Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight" - a small-budgeted (1.5 million) movie about a young African-American growing up poor....and gay....in Miami....and, despite a note-perfect cast, no star power just won Oscar's biggest prize.
This is important for many reasons. Of course it is important for the Black and LGBT communities - which is itself reason enough to celebrate. But there is a less obvious statement this makes which could bode well for the independent filmmaker.
I am old enough to remember how the release cycle used to work for studio films. They would come out in a theater, play for a couple of months (if it was a hit), disappear completely for another couple of months, then get a "big" release on VHS cassette and HBO. Smaller movies and foreign films had it harder. Studios or small distributors who took a flier on indie or subtitled fare almost never gave them a "wide release". They would start small...maybe a one or two week run in 35-40 theaters in the entire U.S. (we currently have about 40,000 screens in the U.S. at roughly 5,400 sites, not including drive-ins). If the movie had above-average, consistent paid attendance, the theaters might keep if for another two weeks.
Now sometimes something special would happen. John Waters hauled his one print of "Pink Flamingos" in his car to the Elgin theater in New York and "4-walled" it. This meant Waters paid for the entire theater hoping people would show up. They did and told everyone they knew to get themselves down to the Elgin to see this outrageous movie. It was picked up by New Line Cinema and the rest is midnight movie history.
Not long after that, a little sci-fi movie that director Brian DePalma said was "atrocious" when George Lucas screened it for him quietly opened on just 33 screens with no advertising. We all know now that "Star Wars" ended up taking the world by storm, shattering box office records. But what really made it happen was how everyone - including my 8 year old self at the time - told everyone they knew they had to go to the theater to see "Star Wars".
The last example of a film getting the amazing word-of-mouth treatment would be Lasse Hallstrom's magical debut "My Life As A Dog" which opened in a few art house theaters in 1987 and ended up playing in nearly all 50 states for over a year. It was from Sweden, subtitled and had nobody famous in it. But I remember seeing it three times in the theater myself, dragging my high school friends with me and delighting in them having to "read" a movie. But they loved it too and they went out and told everyone they knew to see this funny little foreign movie.
Thirty years later, we live in a very different time. I had read many articles about how "word of mouth" didn't matter anymore regarding a film's release...now that we have VOD platforms and torrent sites, movie theaters are irrelevant anyway...Netflix and Amazon are the new power brokers buying everything at Sundance...blah blah blah.
Yet "Moonlight" brought word of mouth back from the brink. It opened in a few select theaters in October and audiences and critics starting talking it up. The releasing company, A24, gambled on a wider release and it "found" its audience. It didn't need an all-out marketing assault. It didn't need its soundtrack playing in Starbucks. It didn't need a theme park tie-in. It didn't need a built-in comic book audience. It didn't need exploitive sex or graphic violence. It didn't need a green screen. It didn't need to dumb down or "tone down" its screenplay to play in Peoria.
Finally, all a movie had to be.....was good. "Moonlight" winning Best Picture proved that all of "us" (the non-studio, non-represented filmmakers scraping by) can still be seen and heard if we do our jobs well. It's like playing a round of golf badly for seventeen holes then getting a birdie on the 18th. The golf course might have beat you up all day but because you birdied the last, it gives you just enough confidence to come back to the course again.
For all of you filmmakers out there who are teetering on the edge of the great abyss known as "giving up" and selling your film equipment on eBay, just remember February 26th, 2017 when Oscar got it right and audiences made sure to tell everyone they knew to go see "Moonlight".